Grow your own medicinal herb larder with these ideas for plants to grow in a salve garden. Includes plants to infuse into healing balms to soothe eczema, bug bites, and minor burns and injuries
If you are interested in plants for skin care and skin healing, you should consider growing a salve garden. Plants in a salve garden have medicinal properties that can help calm, soothe, and heal the skin. Some of them we grow for edible, ornamental, or other medicinal purposes, and others we might already be growing in our beds as “weeds.” Growing these plants together or as part of a more extensive practical garden is the first step in creating salves from scratch.
What is a salve, though? Healing skin salves are probably the easiest and most practical skincare products that we can make at home. They are oil-based medicinal skin balms infused with plant essences that heal or treat the skin. Some, like melissa balm, have antimicrobial or antiviral properties. Calendula and chamomile can soothe inflammation and itching while promoting healing. Others, like comfrey and arnica, can speed up the healing of bruises and sprains.
Making Handmade Salves
Salves begin with the flowers, leaves, and roots of healing plants. You harvest them when they have their highest levels of active constituents, and each plant can be different. Then you seep this material (usually dried first, for safety and salve longevity) in a liquid carrier oil over several weeks, into which they release their medicinal components. The infused oil is one of the ingredients you use to create salves.
Salves are a semi-solid oil-based substance made by melting together oils that are liquid and solid at room temperature. Beeswax or soy wax are standard solid waxes/fats used in salve recipes, and sweet almond oil is my liquid carrier oil of choice. Their combined texture is soft enough to scoop with your fingers and massage onto the skin. Salves are an essential part of a home herbal medicine chest and perfectly safe for the beginner to make. I share full instructions on how to make a healing salve here.
Calendula officinalis is one of the most versatile medicinal plants we have. It’s an edible flower, used for natural dyeing, and is a powerful skin healer. Calendula salve, made from calendula flowers, is excellent for speeding up the healing of minor cuts, scrapes, and burns, and tints salves (and soap!) a gorgeous golden color too. I’ve even dedicated an entire ebook to growing and using calendula and also have shared growing tips over here.
Comfrey Symphytum officinale is again a versatile skincare plant. It’s a magnet for bees and other pollinators when in bloom, and the leaves make an excellent potash-rich homemade plant feed. In herbalism, you can use comfrey leaf oil to make skin salves so powerful at healing that you should only apply them around open wounds. Putting them directly on an injury can cause it to heal so quickly that bacteria and microbes could be trapped inside. You can also use comfrey in salves to treat bruises, sprains, and other internal tissue damage.
Comfrey is a very easy to grow plant but the most common type, Symphytum officinale, can take over your garden. It sets seeds and the babies will more than happily colonize whatever space they are given. I grow a sterile type of comfrey called Bocking 14 though and it only grows from pieces of root.
German chamomile, Chamomilla recutita syn. Matricaria recutita, is an annual herb with sweet-smelling flowers that we commonly infuse in water and drink as tea. The flowers also have many of the same gentle healing benefits as calendula and are especially useful for treating inflamed skin conditions such as eczema. It’s also anti-itch and great for including in rash treatments. For skin, most herbalists use a water-based wash or infusion of chamomile, either neat or blended into a chamomile skin cream. You can also infuse the flowers into a carrier oil and use it to create healing skin salves.
Chamomile comes as tall German chamomile, with masses of flowers, or as lower-lying Roman chamomile with fewer flowers. German is preferable for growing for skin care since it’s the flowers that you use. It’s also an annual, compared to Roman, which is a perennial.
A wild and also cultivated plant, Arnica montana grows as a perennial and produces simple and cheerful yellow flowers. It’s these flowers that we can use to make healing salves. Long used in European herbalism for various treatments, arnica is most commonly known today as a healer of sprains and bruises. However, you can also use it in salves for soothing muscle pain. Applied externally to unbroken skin, the essence of arnica flowers can be powerful in stimulating tissue to heal itself from within.
Arnica is a hardy perennial that does well in well-drained soil at higher elevations. It’s a wild plant that comes from the mountains of central Europe so for it to grow well, you do need to mimic its native habitat.
A common and edible “weed”, chickweed Stellaria media loves temperate climates with plenty of rain and can spring up in garden beds as well as pots and containers. Chickweed grows masses of soft green leaves with star-like white flowers and is edible in small quantities. The soft crunchy leaves are perfect in a fresh salad! The plant also has incredible skin-soothing and anti-itch properties, among other medicinal properties. In salves, we use chickweed to treat itchy and inflamed skin resulting from eczema, psoriasis, nettle stings, and rashes.
Lemon balm Melissa officinalis is also known as Melissa balm and sometimes as bee balm — melissa means bee in Greek and for a good reason. Bees love their flowers! Lemon balm leaves are used mainly for the skin in treating viral infections such as herpes, shingles, and cold sores. It has potent antiviral activity and can cut down the healing time of a cold sore by half. It’s also in the mint family and, like its cousins, can take over an area in no time. If you want to keep it under control, keep it in a pot, as you would with peppermint. There’s a recipe for Vegan lemon balm lip balm in my book.
There are two types of plantain used in skin treatment, and they both grow as common garden weeds in temperate gardens. Common plantain Plantago major and ribwort plantain Plantago lanceolata are low-lying perennial plants that form a rosette of leaves with spikes of spear-like flowers. The leaves have many of the same healing qualities as calendula and comfrey and help to stimulate the healing of minor cuts, abrasions, and bruises. You can also use it for hemorrhoids. A little off-topic, but I also recently learned that the immature flower heads of both taste like mushrooms!
St Johns Wort
Though most people know of St Johns wort Hypericum perforatum as a treatment for depression, the flowers also have skin-healing properties. You first infuse the fresh flowers into oil, which turns a vibrant bright red (hence its use as a dye plant). Use the infused oil to make healing salves for wounds and burns as well as joint pain. When growing it, it prefers a sunny place with well-drained chalky soil. You can harvest the entire flowering tops in summer.
Yarrow Achillea millefolium grows wild in the borders around our allotment garden, but you can cultivate it as a perennial herb in the garden too. Its leaves have many medicinal uses, but in salves, they’re used as an antiseptic, to help staunch bleeding, and to promote wound healing. It’s also a great addition in salves for insect bites, hemorrhoids, burns, and bruises. Both the flowers and leaves of the plant are harvested and used when in flower.
Though it mainly grows as a wild plant, you can cultivate yarrow in the garden too. This perennial prefers full-sun, well-drained soil, and will grow in both poor and nutrient-rich soil. It’s wild, so if you give it extra goodness it will grow pretty big and may need supports.
Anyone who has chopped chili and then accidentally touched a sensitive place knows what it can do. It heats the skin and can cause burning in mucus membranes, like our eyes. You can use this warming action to medicinal benefit, though, and that is why cayenne peppers Capsicum frutescens is considered a salve plant. In salves, it works to increase blood flow to an area so is used as a muscle rub or to relieve rheumatic and arthritic joints. Peppers are a common vegetable garden plant but they can also happily grow in pots and containers. Bring them in during the winter, and they can live for many years as a perennial.
Salve Garden and Skincare Plants for Beginners
Growing a salve garden is part of growing and using plants for skin care and skin treatment. I introduce this idea in my new book, A Woman’s Garden Grow Beautiful Plants and Make Useful things, along with dozens of plants that we can use for health and healing. Here are even more ideas for using plants in skin therapy:
- Grow Healing Plants in a Beauty and Skincare Garden
- Honey Body Butter Recipe (honey also has powerful skin-healing properties)
- Guide to Using Flowers and Herbs in Soap Recipes
- 9 Natural Soap Plants for making Lye-free Soap
- Simple Tips for How to Grow English Lavender